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I looked down on 5th Avenue and could just see, in the distance, Saks, and opposite, the Rockefeller Center. Recently I’d gone ice skating there with a woman I had begun to care for more than I should, and who liked spending time with me.
It was a relationship that had evolved slowly and was now moving into dangerous territory. From the moment our eyes first met across the ice, I knew that outing had been a mistake. Whatever I’d been thinking it couldn’t happen, but against better judgement, I had let it happen.
It was not her fault, it was mine. I was not the person she thought I was, the person I wanted to be, and if the circumstances of my past were not as they were, the person she was most likely looking for.
It had happened before, and it would happen again, and the result would be the same. I would move on, find a new city, a new job, a new life, and continue to hide in plain sight.
Waiting for an eventuality that may never happen, but if it did, it would happen to me alone, not the woman I loved.
I sighed inwardly, thinking about how unfair life could be. And how much, this time, I wanted it to be different.
From my office window, high up in the sky, I could see several Fire Department vehicles going through yet another drill and could just hear the sound of the sirens floating up to the 32nd floor. Darkness was closing in, and the fast-moving red strobing lights stood out against the neon signs, the street lighting, and the Christmas decorations.
It was that time of the year again, a time that brought back very sad memories. For most people, it was when families came together to celebrate. That was not possible for me. I’d thought with the passing of time it would no longer hurt so much, but it did. I felt a tear in my eye and pulled a tissue out of the box on my desk to wipe it away.
Enough with the sentimentality.
Behind me, I heard files being dropped on my desk. It was Friday when Maria from Accounting brought me the latest customers who were overdue in paying their investment contributions. The stack was getting bigger every week.
I turned to face her. She was only three years younger than me but looked ten. Italian parents, conservative dressed, reserved manner, but usually friendly and outgoing, she was well liked by all. What surprised me, out of all the people she could choose as a friend, and since our ice skating expedition something more than that, she chose me.
I was not exactly the easiest of people to get along with, for obvious reasons.
I soon discovered this was the only time she and I could meet in the office without the prying eyes of our workmates making more of it than it was. Office romances, not that either of us would acknowledge we were having one, were frowned upon. Worse, rumours were very easily started, and much harder to quash.
“To be honest, I’m glad I don’t have your job, Will.”
She looked at the stack and then gave me a special look, one I wanted to believe was reserved just for me. Her smile always tugged at a heart string or maybe two. This night it did more than that.
I shrugged and tried to be casual. “I was told I had a gift.”
“Ah, the statement of faith, just before the sucker punch.”
Everyone knew to call customers in distress was a difficult job at best. It required tact and diplomacy, a trait I’d acquired over time because of my situation. It had been a strange match of opportunity and unrealized talent when a disgruntled customer had come into the office and verbally attacked Mr Bartleby, a senior partner.
I’d talked the customer down, and talked myself into the job. I’d only agreed to do it because it came with the promise of a promotion. Now I was considering an exit strategy, it probably didn’t matter.
“Doing anything for the weekend?” She asked the same question every Friday. The last time, I surprised her by asking if she skated on ice, not expecting she did. She said yes.
It didn’t take long to realize she would have said yes to climbing Mount Everest. It was her first time on skates, and we learned a lot about each other over the half hour she managed to stay upright.
For her bravery, I took her to dinner and then took her home. She asked me to stay for a while, to patch up her wounds, perhaps the modern day equivalent of ‘would you like to come up and see my paintings’.
Whatever her intentions or my desires, we just talked over a bottle of wine and then coffee. I didn’t have to leave, but it was better for both of us that I did.
I closed my eyes to break the connection. I could feel it. I was starting to fall in love with this girl, this woman, and I knew I had to be careful. It would not be long before the questions started; questions I couldn’t answer.
“No. I wasn’t intending to do much.”
“Then perhaps you might consider joining the rest of us monkeys for beer, wine and a lively discussion about anything but work. Harry’s found a new bar, up on 6th Avenue.”
Harry was our social director, not a real one but self-appointed, and he organised most of the unofficial staff gatherings. He was a bit too self-important for me, an ‘I am’ sort of guy, but he went to Harvard and had probably earned the right. I wasn’t on his social radar so he rarely invited me to anything. If he did, I generally declined. Those gatherings were the hunting grounds of the go-getters, the rookies looking for an edge to climb the corporate ladder. I was all about keeping a low profile.
“Is he asking, or you?”
A momentary frown settled on her face. We’d had a similar discussion once before, and I’d realized then she tried only to see the good in people. Perhaps that was why I was so lucky.
“Does it matter?”
I pretended to think about it for a minute, and then said, “No.”
Her smile returned. “Do you want me to come to fetch you?”
“As appealing as that sounds, I have a couple of matters to tidy up. You go, and I’ll drop in later.”
The expression on her face told me she didn’t believe me. It was not without merit, because I had told her the same before and not followed through. Then, it didn’t matter because I hadn’t known her all that well. Now, it seemed everything had changed.
“You are not just saying that to get rid of me, are you?” The tone matched the doubtful expression.
Blunt, but fairly accurate. I didn’t want to underestimate this girl. In normal circumstances, I might have considered something else, other than drinks. Instead, I said, “I would have preferred a walk in Central Park, but I don’t think the weather is going to behave.”
Then I had a moment where I thought if I told her something closer to the truth, it might help me climb my way out of the deep hole I was digging for myself. “To be honest, I’m not very good at these social gatherings.”
Another change in expression, she had many faces for many occasions. This one was of surprise, or was it agreement?
“Then you and I could go somewhere else if you like.”
Not exactly the result I was looking for.
“We could, but then you would miss out on being with your friends and most likely miss the next scandal to envelop us.”
The last one was about Bartleby junior and a certain socialite. Everyone knew what he was like except one person, his current fiancée Katrina.
“True.” She shrugged. I had just become a lost cause. “I will look out for you. But remember, I will be disappointed if you don’t come.”
She gave me a last look, somewhat whimsical I thought, as I watched her walk across the floor to the elevator lobby. It was like watching the love of my life leaving, without turning back.
I’d promised myself a long time ago that I would not get involved with a woman, but I soon learned how difficult a promise like that was to keep, especially when the woman’s name was Katrina.
I’d not known real love before, and it was not difficult to fall under her spell. She was as beautiful as she was beguiling.
A long time ago, in what felt like another lifetime, Katrina Winslow and I worked together. She taught me my first job at Bentley, Bowman and Bartleby, Accountants. And, as with anyone with whom you work so closely, we became friends, and then something more than that.
By the time I realised what had happened, it was too late. She was the daughter of parents who cared about their daughter, and the people with whom she associated. They had me investigated.
I remember that Monday morning as if it was yesterday when she came into my office. We had spent a perfect weekend together, and when I left her Sunday night, I was full of those starry-eyed dreams people in love had.
An hour later, all of those dreams had been shattered, not only for me but for her too. I had no answers for her questions, answers the investigators could not find. I knew from the first day I met her she was out of my league, but I honestly believed love could conquer all.
Her father didn’t. It ended, and in time I realized it was for the best. I had nothing to offer her, and I could never give answers to any of the questions she might ask.
Not long after, Maria told me about her engagement to Marcus Bartleby, son of the remaining live partner whose name graced the building, and signs throughout the city. I told myself he would be the sort of man her father believed she deserved, but in my heart, I knew what sort of person Marcus was, and equally, there was nothing I could do about it.
I had a secret, one that I could never tell anyone. And until I could find a way of reconciling my past I could never contemplate having a future, make any friends, or find any sort of peace or happiness.
With Katrina, with Maria, or anyone else.
The truth is my life was the equivalent of a metaphorical train wreck. You wouldn’t know it, looking at me, but how I looked now, how I acted and reacted was a product of many years of practice. From the moment I had seen my parents murdered at the age of fourteen, I’d been on the run. Being that young, it was tough on the road, and I had to get street smart, and defensive, very quickly. I’d learned the hard way, through the school of hard knocks. By comparison, the Bartleby’s of this world had got it easy.
But, don’t get me wrong. It was not something I was bitter about. It was what it was. I did what I had to do, and what I have to. I accepted they had and always would have everything handed to them on a platter. It was the way of the world.
On the upside, I had only myself to please. I did not have to rely on anyone else, nor was I responsible for anyone but myself. I had no family to speak of, or that I would acknowledge.
My father had been an orphan and had spent a relatively lonely life up to the point where he married my mother.
The family I had on my mother’s side were the reason I ran away and kept running, and fortunately, I had not seen any of them since the day I finally escaped.
On the downside, I’d never stayed in one place too long, and never had the time to get a good education, a prerequisite for a good job. Instead, I had a lot of experience in jobs that didn’t have much of a career path.
I’d thought of night school, even tried it once, but it didn’t work out. That was the catalyst for joining the army, the one place where people like me finished up. It was a place to call home wherever they dumped you, and you made friends that didn’t care who or what you were, or cared too much about your past.
I was sent to Iraq, the first time around, with a great bunch of guys, until most of the platoon was killed in a suicide bombing, and the few that survived, including me, were physically repaired and discharged.
In the years since I’d stopped in ten cities. New York was the most recent, and I’d been here the longest. I’d carved a path across America from the Mid West, a place called Columbus, Nebraska, through to New York, with a lot of places in between. It was an interesting way to see the country when in normal circumstances I would have little reason to leave my home town.
Now, after all the running, all the looking over my shoulder, there was a desire to stop. The problem was I couldn’t. I couldn’t afford to feel safe, because the moment I did, the moment I let down my guard, it would be when I’d make a mistake, a mistake that could have horrific consequences. Not only for me but others around me.
I’d learned that lesson well, soon after I had run away from home, but before I left my home town. Escape was a relief, and when they had not caught up with me after a week, I started to feel safe.
I let down my guard. I allowed my trust of the one person in that family I thought was my friend to influence my actions. She had unwittingly led the family to me after being used as a decoy. I hadn’t thought of that possibility.
They handed me to the man who murdered my parents. He told me he’d been willing to track me to the ends of the earth, as long as it took. He held me captive for a few hours until I escaped, and I had no intention of being caught again.
From that day, I never trusted anyone again.
I remembered the demonic look in his eyes when he told me he would never stop looking. He was out there, somewhere, and I had to remain vigilant. The passing of time, for this murderer, was irrelevant.
And, standing there, looking out the window and down 5th Avenue, I could feel the itch, the one I couldn’t scratch. The one that told me my pursuer, a man who went by the name of Edward Jamieson, wasn’t very far away.
© Charles Heath 2015-2019